hitting a wall with a sledgehammer
Data integration is a challenge that technology can help resolve, provided the focus is on the right place: the people you are serving PHOTO: Ted Eytan

Companies across the board have made improving the customer experience their priority. Initially these efforts took the form of website improvements (e.g., simplifying the checkout process, improving internal search functionality), then they expanded to creating and funding programs to engage prospects and customers in the other environments where they discussed brand experiences (think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and the like).

Today, companies are taking a much more holistic view of customer experience. Focus has turned to enhancing these experiences regardless of where the engagement happens, what devices are used, or what company departments they connect to. In an ideal world, fully realized, this would mean a highly personalized connection to all individual customers throughout their life cycles with the brand, driven by a comprehensive set of customer insights related to customer preferences, purchasing patterns, interests and product experiences. 

But two of the biggest challenges businesses face in attaining these customer experience goals are developing an agreed-upon overarching company strategy and integrating customer data to create a comprehensive view of the customer.

First Things First: No 'Experience' Trumps a Bad Product

Before diving into thoughts about strategy and customer data I think it’s worthwhile to emphasize that at the core of the customer experience is the experience the customer has with the product itself. At the end of the day, it’s important to remain focused on the quality of the product that you produce and ensure that you are in lock step with customer needs. If you don’t do that, no amount of website improvements, social media engagement efforts or personalized emails are going to overcome your product deficiencies.

Who Should Lead CX Strategy?

Assuming that you have product development well in hand, bringing together multiple departments to establish and execute a comprehensive customer experience strategy requires that goals be established and monitored at the executive level, and that someone is put in charge of the overall program. The three most likely candidates for this task are the following teams:

  1. Product management: One could argue that customer experience is actually a component of the product itself.
  2. Marketing operations: They drive the greatest number of customer touchpoints.
  3. The IT group: They naturally engage across all departments.

There is no right or wrong answer — only the best option for each company. In some companies, it may make sense to have a committee or task force co-led by representatives from each constituent department. Regardless of approach, buy-in across the organization is essential. Without that, any plan is doomed to fail.

Where’s the Data?

In most companies, data ownership breaks down like this: marketing owns the lead and prospect data, as well as the customer behavioral data; sales owns the contact and account management data; service owns the product issue data; and finance has transaction records. Everyone understands the key to success is having a comprehensive 360-degree view of all customers and their life cycle journeys. 

The challenge is understanding how to integrate all the disparate data sets to create actionable insights that lead to a coordinated customer engagement strategy. (How annoying is it to receive three emails from the same company in the same day?)

When it comes to data integration, there are two possible approaches — centralized data management and distributed data orchestration. With a centralized management strategy, companies leverage a customer data platform (CDP) to collect, integrate, manage and enhance customer data in its entirety, creating a central repository of data. With a data orchestration strategy, companies use a data management platform to enhance data and to ensure that data is synchronized across the many platforms that are used by sales, marketing, service and finance. 

Either approach is valid. The decision about which way to go generally comes down to a company’s philosophy on business, architecture and technology.

Rules and Regulations

When the EU's General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect this year it will bring some additional complications to those challenges. The GDPR will dictate how companies use and manage data related to European Union citizens. Companies will be responsible for ensuring that their entire data supply chain is in compliance with the new regulations. 

Further complicating things, some of the details of the regulations are still ambiguous. 

Regardless of ambiguity, companies must take steps now to identify, separate and manage EU customer data. Some companies are choosing to house and manage EU customer data in separate EU-based data centers. Others are putting systems in place to identify, separate and block EU consumer data from passing through the data supply chain. Burying your head in the sand is not an option: If you have data on EU consumers, you must have a plan in place to manage it within the constraints of the GDPR.

When Worlds Collide

Organizational silos are hugely challenging. We tend to think of them as having been created by power-mad departmental isolationists, but the truth is that in many cases they developed organically as a result of departments working fast without enough resources and without investing time in cross-departmental communications. When priorities and goals are established at the executive level, and cross-departmental teams are formed, boundaries start to dissolve. 

I’ve seen many organizations over the past year successfully bridging silos in pursuit of corporate goals. Some of the most impressive work that I’ve seen has been in large companies that are active acquirers. Creating a comprehensive customer experience plan is complicated in any company, but when two companies come together, the level of complexity increases exponentially. The only path to success when you have two sets of distributed data and double the number of departments is to start with a working task force and a very clear set of goals and priorities.

The companies I have seen do this well take pragmatic step-by-step approaches, solving one problem at a time and resisting the distraction of trying to leapfrog the basics to reach some unattainable nirvana.

It’s (Not) All About Technology 

When we talk about customer experience goals and data integration, it’s easy to define this as a technology challenge. Technology is required to support customer experience goals and is a tremendous enabler. But taken alone, it is not valuable. It’s what we do with the technology that is important. 

We can’t lose sight of the fact that we are selling to human beings, not artificial personas. We all know that emotion plays a large part in any purchasing decision and in the perception a consumer has of a brand. To connect on an emotional level, we must form our customer experience goals and plans by putting our customers’ needs and desires first and we must recognize that it is a human being that we are serving. 

In the past year, companies have widely deployed chatbots. Those that have done it well have enhanced their service with a responsive and helpful assistant. But have you had the experience of no one being home in chatbot land? I have, and I can tell you the site would have been better off using an email contact instead of a chatbot with no one responding.

We are heading toward automated chatbots powered by artificial intelligence. Right now, that prospect makes me shudder: I worry that AI-driven chatbots will become the next automated telephone system — press 1 for this, press 2 for that, etc. It’s important to take the human experience into consideration when you evaluate and deploy any new technology. If the new system doesn’t provide a positive experience, then don’t use it.

By this time next year, I hope that we are no longer talking about departmental and data silos because, as big as the challenges are, they are not insurmountable: building a better customer experience by dismantling departmental and data silos just takes commitment. Next year, I hope that we are instead focusing in on more creative ways to actually enhance the customer experience.